Shall We Play a Game?

They were standing on the edge of a huge chessboard, behind the black chessmen, which were taller than they were and carved from what looked like black stone. Facing them, way across the chamber, were the white pieces. Harry, Ron and Hermione shivered slightly – the towering white chessmen had no faces.

“Now what do we do?” Harry whispered.

“It’s obvious, isn’t it?” said Ron. “We’ve got to play our way across the room.”

As a Wizarding Chess afficionado, Ron quickly figures out that the giant chess pieces they encounter in Professor McGonnagall’s task have been transfigured into the moving, “living” pieces of Wizarding Chess. He quickly deduces that the three of them will have to take the places of black chess pieces and confirms this with one of the black knights:

[Ron] walked up to a black knight and put his hand out to touch the knight’s horse. At once, the stone sprang to life. The horse pawed the ground and the knight turned his helmeted head to look down at Ron.

“Do we – er – have to join you to get across?”

The black knight nodded.

The Task

Unlike Professor Flitwick’s complex task, this one is fairly straightforward – once it’s figured out. The prospective thief has to take the place of a black chess piece and play a successful game of chess. But therein lies the problem. While it takes intelligence to play chess, having intelligence is no guarantee of success.

Chess is a game of strategy, and so it takes a strategic thinker to win at it – someone who can see the big picture, comprehend the implications of the opponents’ moves, and plan moves in advance. In other words, it takes a specific type of intelligence. This is what makes McGonnagall’s task rather brilliant. It narrows the field considerably concerning who would be able to get to the next door. Hermione herself (minus Ron) would likely not have passed successfully through this task.

But Why Is This Task for Gryffindor?

Shouldn’t chess be more of a Ravenclaw specialty? I mean, in RL it is the province of those crypto-Ravenclaws of the Muggle world – Math and Computer geeks. So why should this be the task for the Head of House for Gryffindor?

Transfiguration: Well, the most obvious answer is that the task requires the pieces to undergo Transfiguration spells… and Transfiguration is McGonnagall’s specialty. In fact, it seems that Transfiguration is something of a Gryffindor specialty. Such noted Gryffindors as Professor Dumbledore have specialized in Transfiguration. And several recent Gryffindors (three Marauders and Professor McGonnagall) are known to be capable of making the animagus transformation (not technically Transfiguration, but certainly requiring Transfiguration skills as a prerequisite).

Transfiguration, according to McGonnagall, is among the most “complex and dangerous magic” taught at Hogwarts – the danger, perhaps, being a reason the discipline seems to coalesce around Gryffindor. But thus far (at Hogwarts at least), we’ve seen mainly the lighter side of Transfiguration. We’ve watched Professor McGonnagall transfigure her desk into a pig (and back again), teach her First Years to change a match into a needle, and test them on turning a mouse into a snuffbox. In the chess task, we finally see the more serious application of Transfiguration.

War: Additionally, chess is a warlike game, involving pieces that emulate soldiers crossing a battlefield. The game, in fact, is won by capturing the opposing player’s King. Gryffindor, of course, is the most warlike of Houses – the House that most highly values bravery and chivalry. And McGonnagall’s version of chess creates an aura of battlefield danger, guaranteed to unnerve your average prospective thief.

The white pieces don’t just “take” black pieces. They hit and break them, with strong stone arms:

[The Trio’s] first real shock came when their other knight was taken. The white queen smashed him to the floor and dragged him off the board, where he lay quite still, facedown.


Every time one of their men was lost, the white pieces showed no mercy. Soon there was a huddle of limp black players slumped along the wall.

McGonnagall’s transfiguration transforms a game based on war into an actual simulation of war.

Strategy: Smart as the Ravenclaws are, and crafty as the Slytherins, the best strategic thinker in the series is Albus Dumbledore – who manages the wars against Voldemort like a master moving pieces around the board. While Dumbledore’s Slytherin protegé, Severus Snape, is a brilliant tactician, Snape is not essentially a strategist. And this perhaps shows us something about the differences between Ravenclaw intelligence, Slytherin intelligence, Hufflepuff intelligence, and Gryffindor intelligence.

Ravenclaw is often said to admire abstract, theoretical knowledge. Slytherin admires skill and practical application. Hufflepuff emphasizes an earthy, pragmatic, common-sense approach. But despite its reputation (largely among Slytherins) for reckless action, Gryffindor, perhaps, brings the strongest capacity for strategic thought.

Certainly the evidence for strategy being the most Gryffindorish type of intelligence is a bit thin if we base it entirely on Dumbledore, but if we consider that strategy is the quality most desired in warfare – and martial ability is a huge part of the Gryffindor portfolio – then we perhaps have a more solid circumstantial basis for linking Gryffindor with strategic intelligence.

So What Do We Learn about McGonnagall?

She’s pretty formidable – far more formidable than the no-nonsense witch who sternly greets new students.

Not only does she perform the necessary transfiguration to animate the pieces, she “programs” the white pieces to respond to the black strategy and create a dynamic strategy for defense of the Stone. (Curiously, too, she uses the traditional color scheme of white representing the “good” defenders of the Stone and black representing the “bad” prospective thieves).

Unless there is a ready-made spell that gives transfigured pieces the sort of strategic knowledge necessary to play a human opponent without human assistance, McGonnagall must have chess-expert knowledge of the inner workings of the game in order to give the pieces that ability. (And given that chess is the task she chooses, my bet is that she does.)

Additionally, this simulation of battle foreshadows what we will ultimately see of McGonnagall in the context of a real battle in DH – as she defends Hogwarts against the minions (and assumed minions) of the Dark Lord.

McGonnagall ruthlessly duels presumed Death Eater Severus Snape in one of the corridors of the castle (making it, I think, safe to say that the scary White Queen of Transfigured Chess is a striking symbolic representation of McGonnagall herself). And the actual animation of the chess pieces is a foreshadowing of McGonnagall’s calling on the statues and armor to do their duty and defend the school during the Battle of Hogwarts:

“And now – Piertotem Locomotor!” cried Professor McGonnagall.

And all along the corridor the statues and suits of armor jumped down from their plinths, and from the echoing crashes from the floors above and below, Harry knew that their fellows throughout the castle had done the same.

“Hogwarts is threatened!” shouted Professor McGonnagall. “Man the boundaries, protect us, do your duty to our school!”

Clattering and yelling, the horde of moving statues stampeded past Harry: some of them smaller, others larger, than life. There were animals too, and the clanking suits of armor brandished swords and spiked balls on chains.

“Now, Potter,” said McGonagall, “you and Miss Lovegood had better return to your friends and bring them to the Great Hall – I shall rouse the other Gryffindors.”

That is the quintessentially Gryffindor Professor McGonnagall in the context of war. She takes charge. She defends the school. And she shows no mercy to any she believes would dare overthrow Hogwarts.

[Translation of Piertotem Locomotor: “All do your duty!”]

11 responses to “Shall We Play a Game?

  1. One interesting thing about this game – the fact that the chess pieces can actually ‘hurt’ the players really only matters to the Trio. QuirrelMort is only ONE player and so only replaces ONE piece. He is not at as much risk as the trio are simply because the pieces destroyed ARE merely other chess pieces – just so long th piece QuirrelMort is playing doesn’t need to get hit.

    Therefore, when it comes to sacrificing the Knight (if QuirrelMort actually played the same game), he needn’t care at all about it being destroyed. Not that I believe he WOULD care if it was another human – but in this case, the matter only comes up with the Trio.

    • Good analysis, Hwyla. I did have it in the back of my mind that Quirrellmort would constitute only one piece, but I didn’t tease it out as far as you did, so I wasn’t thinking in terms of the fact that a single player is in less danger than three players.

      But now that you mention it…

      At the beginning of the game (before any pieces are taken), there is already a 6.25% chance that the single piece will be taken, while there is a whopping 18.75% chance that one of three pieces will be taken – and this is not even taking into consideration which pieces are most valuable to take. The chances of one piece being taken increase, of course, as more pieces are taken and the remaining pieces are more exposed. However, there is considerably less chance of two of the select pieces being taken.

      I do think that your average thief would be quite intimidated by the brutality of the game – though perhaps analyzing for the “average thief” isn’t really relevant given that the average thief never would go to these lengths to get to the Stone!

      Of course, Quirrell would be far more frightened of Voldemort than of any White Queen or her companions, so he would persist regardless.

      I do wonder, though, whether it was Quirrell’s brain or Voldemort’s that got Quirrellmort through the task. Perhaps Voldemort practiced chess through the Slug Club?

      • “I do wonder, though, whether it was Quirrell’s brain or Voldemort’s that got Quirrellmort through the task.”

        I wonder this of each of the tasks (minus the troll– obviously, that was Quirrell’s area of expertise), especially the keys, the chessboard, and the logic puzzle. Most of Quirrell’s skills are never really shown to us (all we get is Hagrid saying he had a good mind, which could mean anything from inventiveness to memorization), so we have no idea how much he contributed to the intellectual and strategic puzzles. Did he possess the know-how to overcome McGonagall’s chess set? Or was Voldemort coaching him? What happened when they disagreed?

        Voldemort: Quirrell! Move your knight to E6!
        Quirrell: But, Master, if I do that, the white bishop will take him.
        Voldemort: …I knew that! Never mind, then, move that pawn to H4.
        Quirrell: But–
        Voldemort: NOW! WHEN I GET MY BODY BACK, SO HELP ME, I’LL–
        Quirrell: PAWN TO H4! PAWN TO H4!!! O_O;

        • :lol:

          Well, as I said, he’d probably be a lot more afraid of what Voldemort could do to him than of any White Queen!

          But you do raise good questions. I’ve been wondering what he contributes as well.

  2. Mcgonagall is definitely the basis for the white queen, I see no other option.
    I have never pictured the individual tasks representing the houses of that professor. What about Quirrel and Hagrid? Dumbledore too: none of them represent a house. Although I can’t quite see your comparison, I find your analysis of the houses intelligence to be spot on. Since you left Hufflepuff out, do you find them to have no specific specialty? They won’t take well to that, you know. ;)

    • Good questions, Mad!

      Hagrid’s protection, I think, is more the external guard of the Stone rather than an actual task beyond the Trapdoor. Fluffy “guards the gates,” as it were.

      I don’t think of Quirrell’s protection as a task either – in that it was completely bogus. He had a way with trolls, so he planted a troll in order to get past it easily. Since his method for getting past it meant knocking it out, he basically allowed anyone who came after him to get past the troll as well. So Quirrell, I don’t think, really counts.

      Dumbledore’s task, too, is not really a task in that it is supposed to be the final block – the insurmountable challenge. The only reason Harry is able to succeed with the Mirror is that he is not trying to steal the Stone. He only wishes to protect it from Voldemort. For this reason, the Mirror yields the Stone to Harry. Also, as Headmaster, Dumbledore (though a Gryffindor) sort of transcends House. And so, I think, does the Mirror.

      As for leaving out Hufflepuff… the only reason I left them out was that I couldn’t think at the time of how to phrase what I wanted to say without having it sound too much like Slytherin – since I see both of them as the more practical Houses. But I think I’ve figured it out now, so I can go back and edit it in:

      I regard Hufflepuff’s form of intelligence as a sort of earthy, pragmatic, common sense intelligence – as exemplified in Sprout’s Devil’s Snare task. It’s not flashy, but it gets the job done.

      At any rate, the connections I’m making between the tasks and the Houses are not supposed to be hard and fast so much as they are to show how House traits express themselves through the people who belong to those Houses. A different Hufflepuff would give a different task than the Devil’s Snare because a different Hufflepuff would not be Pomona Sprout. Likewise with a different Gryffindor. Still, if the person is well sorted, then the task would tell us not only about the individual but would most likely also express something about that individual’s House traits. Does that make sense?

      • Perfect sense, thanks. And I think that the Hufflepuffs have forgiven you. Your description is nice, they are the ‘earth’ house, after all. :)

        • Glad it made sense! And I’m glad to be forgiven by the Hufflepuffs. :) It was not intended as a slight, but more just a temporary brain freeze on my part. Your question helped me put what I was thinking into words. So thanks!

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